Sailor Moon remains one of the most famous manga ever published, and its anime adaptation equally stands up as a hallmark of mahou shoujo productions; the title helped formulate key concepts in the genre, such as the team dynamic and special attacks unique to each girl. Before Sailor Moon, works such as Mahou Tsukai Sally and Himitsu no Akko-chan originated the genre, but they owed more to Western-style pop-culture witches (such as Samantha Stevens from Bewitched, in Sally‘s case) than what is seen now – Tsukino Usagi revitalized the magical girl, making it into a phenomenon where such works as Pretty Cure and Madoka Magica continued the tradition into the 21st century. As an anime, it still holds up after 24 years; it carries the classic theme of light versus darkness in a very Buddhist vein, with Usagi as the eventual leader of a group of Scouts dedicated to fighting the forces of corruption.
The opening of the anime’s first episode presents Tsukino Usagi in her element – she’s a student at Juban Middle School, a clumsy crybaby who does poorly in class. Establishing Usagi as an everyday student helps in understanding that the power to do good comes from any source – one does not have to be a saint or bodhisattva to be a hero, and Usagi’s calling as Sailor Moon stems from her act of kindness towards Luna, whom she saves from some rather mean kids who torment the cat. Note the ubiquitous crescent moon adorning Luna’s forehead – aside from being an easily-recognizable symbol of Sailor Moon, it harkens to Gautama Buddha, whose main symbol is the full moon. This association means Sailor Moon acts as a sort of ideal figure, someone who protects the world against corruptive individuals seeking to bring humanity under the domain of a dark realm, where all light is obscured; the Scouts as a whole are presented in rather bright light, a beacon of justice amidst confusion.
The introduction of Sailor Venus (also known as Sailor V) informs the audience of an ongoing effort to curb crime; although Venus’ civilian identity of Aino Minako has yet to be revealed, her presence in the first episode reminds us that the struggle between light and darkness is eternal, and modern-day heroes such as Sailor Moon and Sailor Venus tap into the primeval nature of this light-darkness duality. Sailor Venus initially appears as a superheroic crime-fighter, a veritable sentai heroine complete with stylized uniform; she is bathed in light, a sparkling beacon of hope in a world that still contends with the aforementioned light-darkness struggle. It’s all a modern take on that struggle – it reminds me of how superheroes in general reflect the culture they were conceived in, with Sailor Moon being an excellent reminder of Japan’s Buddhist and Shinto religious roots.
By contrast, Queen Beryl and Jadeite represent the “darkness” side of this conflict; here, one can see a wonderful reflection of Buddhist and Shinto concepts in Sailor Moon, as the Dark Kingdom preys upon human materialistic desires and weaknesses in order to gather energy from them. In this case, the allure of jewelry goes into the Buddhist fetter of material desire known as rūparāgo; Buddhism teaches that one must dispense with all ten fetters in order to achieve proper enlightenment and break the cycle of reincarnation, and the Dark Kingdom illustrates how strong the fetters can be if left unchecked. Humanity still enjoys material things, but knowing moderation is key; the Dark Kingdom works in the shadows, possessing unsuspecting individuals and using them to gather energy for its own nefarious goals.
The final scenes see Tsukino Usagi learning about her role as Sailor Moon, then confronting Morga in the jewelry store; in her first real fight against a Dark Kingdom foe, she struggles against her own crybaby nature and receives help from Tuxedo Mask (who is actually Mamoru Chiba). All heroes must start somewhere, and Sailor Moon learns through battle how to steel her resolve in the face of a scary opponent; it’s a good lesson in getting used to one’s new position in life, where you have a lot of responsibility thrust upon you to do battle against an encroaching darkness threatening to engulf humanity. Tuxedo Mask’s entrace comes with two diagonal shots – the first happens to be the thrown rose, and the second of him standing in the window, dominating the scene as someone who comes to assist Sailor Moon and remind her that she’s not in this alone.
I mentioned Buddhism earlier, and now would be a good time to discuss it again: Sailor Moon represents the inner kindness and desire for peace in society, as well as the all-encompassing compassion of the Buddha. Both she and Gautama Buddha have the moon as their respective motifs; the moon became a symbol of Buddha and his guidance because the full moon appeared during key moments of his life, and Sailor Moon extends that motif into the superheroic. Sailor Moon herself has the overarching motif of light, ever-present during her attacks; she’s bringing light into the world where darkness tries to cast it out, and her success shows how one can overcome initial fears and hurdles to bring peace.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this show would be friendship and cooperation – Sailor Moon and Tuxedo Mark work in concert to take down Morga, while Morga works alone as an invasive force attempting to bring the Dark Kingdom’s will into the human world. While Mogra indeed had power, she worked as a common lackey for Jadeite, who viewed her as a failure for losing to Sailor Moon; this casts the Dark Kingdom as a highly hierarchical existence, where one’s position is perhaps more important than being able to connect on a personal level with those around you. By contrast, Sailor Moon and Tuxedo Mask operate as a cooperative team; they don’t have a hierarchy, instead working as friends and allies who look out for the greater good – their success in this episode can be attributed in no small part to their own desires to see the light prevail, and work together instead of making one person do all the work and place so much emphasis on one’s rank.